Postgame scrums are supposed to be boring. No one admits this, of course, because admitting the inanity of the custom would undermine the justification for its persistence, and without its persistence a great many column inches would have to be filled by something else, and no one is quite sure what that would be. So it goes on, game in game out, every extraordinary performance followed up with the same ordinary questions and the same ordinary answers. Players felt good or squeezed their sticks, pucks were got in deep or should have been, small things were done right or need to be worked on: such is the account of every game, as spoken in Scrumese.
After game four between the Senators and Penguins, which Ottawa lost disastrously to put themselves down 3-1, a reporter asked Daniel Alfredsson whether he thought his team would be able to come back to win the series. He asked the question, as all reporters in scrums do, already knowing the answer. In hockey, the correct answer to “Are you, team who is in a bad situation, going to get yourself out of this bad situation and move on to glorious victory?” is “We know we’re good enough to beat them, we just have to take it one night at a time, focus on doing the little things right, and play our game.” It’s a perfectly proper hockey sentiment: confident without being hubristic, with exactly the right sheen of blue-collar lunch-bucket determination. There is absolutely no way to go wrong with that answer. Which is why it was so shocking that Alfredsson chose to pass it up- it was sitting right there, right in front of him, a perfect little piece of traditional home-cooked hockey cliche that everyone would happily eat up- in favor of an entirely unexpected response: “Probably not.”
Alfredsson went on to say more, standard and appropriate things about playing hard and never giving up, context that (as he later complained) was largely ignored, for that “probably not” proved very difficult for people to swallow. It stuck in our throats and stayed there, an exotic morsel that even his supporters couldn’t quite believe they’d been served. Some were offended, some weren’t, but few let the comment pass unnoticed as the great majority of post-game cliches do. These two words alone spawned thousands more, as dozens of commentators and hundreds of fans defended, debated, or condemned Alfredsson’s choice to speak them. They were that controversial.
Unlike most controversial assertions, though, Alfredsson’s “probably not” was not only true, but common knowledge. Literally every single person who heard that statement not only already knew it, but also already agreed with it. If you were God and you decided to spend your time counting all the thoughts thought by people who watched that game, “The Sens probably aren’t going to come back from this” would have been far and away the most popular. Recovering from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series is extremely improbable; everyone knows this. Even people who know nothing about hockey know this. I could ask a ten-year-old Indonesian girl who’s never seen ice outside of a drink if she thinks anyone down 3-1 in any best-of-seven competition is going to win, and she would say “probably not”. It’s not even a hockey thing; it’s just a life thing. It’s a math thing.
We wanted Alfredsson to lie to us. More accurately, we expected him to lie to us, and when he didn’t, some of us were actually pissed off that he didn’t lie to us. People actually wrote outraged blog posts and comments excoriating the man for not telling a blatant, transparent, obvious lie.
Which isn’t surprising. Most of hockey speech is lies.
Or more accurately, most hockey speech is taarof.